Divisions emerging in cabinet over US missile defence

Plans to place part of the US missile defence shield in the Czech Republic have dominated both local and international headlines in recent weeks. The Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek announced in Warsaw on Monday that his country would most likely say "Yes" to Washington. But sharp differences are emerging within Mr Topolanek's centre-right coalition over the plan.

The Czech government has brushed aside both protests from Russia and domestic opposition to plans to place a US radar and tracking station on Czech territory, as part of Washington's plans to extend its controversial missile defence system to Central Europe. Alexandr Vondra, deputy prime minister for European affairs, says signing up to missile defence is the right thing to do.

"We have two options. Either to leave them alone, to build this on let's say the national level, but it would lead to decoupling and it would weaken NATO substantially. Or to do this with them, and I think this system - which we plan to develop together with the US - should be in future a certain backbone of the NATO system, once NATO has agreed unanimously to do this."

But prime minister Topolanek has a problem. Under the Czech constitution, any stationing of foreign troops on Czech soil requires the approval of both houses of parliament. Mr Topolanek doesn't have a majority in the lower house - his cabinet only exists because two left-wing deputies walked out during the confidence vote. And even more crucially, one of his own coalition partners - the Green Party - say they will only support the plan if there's an explicit guarantee that the missile defence system will be incorporated into NATO. The Green Party's Ondrej Liska is the head of the lower house's Committee for European Affairs.

"We need a guarantee that this system will be integrated to the structure and command of NATO. I can imagine only one guarantee which is valid for the international sphere, and this is a clear article in an international agreement between the United States and the Czech Republic. And if such an article, clearly stating that this will become part of NATO, is included in the agreement, we will vote yes in the parliament."

But such a guarantee hardly seems forthcoming. Alexandr Vondra himself admits that for the US missile defence shield to become part of NATO's system of collective defence, all NATO states would have to approve and - most importantly - finance it.

The plan to build the radar base here is still very much in its early stages. There will be weeks of discussion in parliament and behind closed doors. But with the left-wing opposition wholly against the plan, and sharp divisions emerging even within the coalition government, the missile defence system has the potential at least to become an extremely divisive political issue.